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NAB Opposes EchoStar Distant Market DTV Plan

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), in a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, wrote that EchoStar's proposal to deliver DTV signals from the New York and Los Angeles ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC stations "would be a disaster for the Commission, the public, and broadcasters."

NAB said that that "simple greed" is behind the EchoStar proposal, as it would allow EchoStar to offer DTV programming from the major networks "on the cheap," instead of investing in equipment to deliver broadcasts from local DTV stations. NAB pointed out that NAB made similar arguments for not carrying local analog TV stations, but they were able to find technical solutions to deliver local-to-local broadcasting in most, and soon, all U.S. television households, even, NAB said, "after repeatedly telling Congress and the FCC that the technical problems were unsolvable."

NAB refuted EchoStar's assertion that the broadcast industry has not been diligent in pushing the DTV transition. NAB pointed to the huge investment broadcasters have made in DTV infrastructure and referenced the BIA study (see RF Report for November 3, 2003) showing "almost three-quarters -- 73.7% -- of U.S. television households have access to at least six free, over-the-air digital television channels." NAB also stated "An authorative study from last fall shows that on-air DTV facilities are serving 92.7% of the population served by the corresponding analog stations."

NAB also showed that local stations "are doing more and more on the local level to supplement the network HDTV and multicast fare," citing several examples of local HDTV programs and multicast local news/public affairs/weather channels.

NAB warned that the notion that EchoStar's proposal for forced waivers in purported 'digital white areas' would improve matters is "sheer fantasy." "In fact," NAB asserted, "allowing EchoStar to deliver distant digital (or HD) signals to so-called 'digital white areas' would set the stage for a consumer nightmare almost identical to what occurred in 1999, when hundreds of thousands of households had to switch from (illegally-delivered) distant signals to over-the-air reception of local stations. The import of the 'distant digital' proposal is therefore clear: after EchoStar had 'grabbed' customers with a distant digital signal, the costs to local broadcast stations of reclaiming those viewers would go sky-high, since stations would face not only the same financial costs they do now but also the high costs of confronting thousands of angry local viewers with the need to change their reception setup. EchoStar knows all of this, and it fully understands the implication: the "distant digital" plan would not encourage a smooth digital transition, and would not encourage stations to invest in the digital rollout, but would simply make it easy for EchoStar to hook customers on (distant) satellite-delivered digital signals and keep them forever."

NAB also said that the reason for allowing a distant -signal license "has been to make over-the-air programming available by satellite solely as a 'lifeline' to satellite subscribers that had no other options for viewing network work programming. "NAB contends, "The EchoStar proposal would do exactly the opposite: The Commission would override normal copyright principles to permit DBS companies to transmit distant network stations to many millions of additional households, even though (1) the households get a strong signal from their local stations over the air and (2) in most cases, the DBS firm already offers the local analog broadcasts of the same programming, in crisp, digitized form, as part of a local-to-local package. "NAB pointed out that if a station has been unable to go on-air with a digital signal through no fault of its own, every household in that station's market would be considered 'unserved' -- and therefore eligible to receive a retransmitted signal from the New York or Los Angeles ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates' digital broadcasts."

A better approach, according to NAB, would be for the FCC to require DBS to "carry the entire digital signal, including all multicast signals, of every station in every market where they provide local into local service." To counter repeated claims that technology does not support adding these additional channels, NAB listed potential new techniques that could be used to expand satellite capacity, including: "spectrum-sharing between DirecTV and EchoStar; use of Ka-band as well as Ku-band spectrum; higher-order modulation and coding; closer spacing of Ku-band satellites; satellite dishes pointed at multiple orbital slots; use of a second dish to obtain all local stations; and improved signal compression techniques."

NAB's letter to Chairman Powell concluded, "EchoStar's proposal -- by a company with a long track record of lawlessness -- is a recipe for mischief. It would give DBS a government-provided crutch that would set back for years what would otherwise be a market-driven race between DirecTV and EchoStar -- further spurred by competition from cable -- to deliver digital signals on a local-to- local basis. And when local stations later sought to reclaim their own local viewers from the distant digital transmission, there would be a consumer firestorm much like what occurred when two major satellite carriers were required to turn off (illegally delivered) distant analog signals to millions of households in 1999."

As of March 28, NAB had not posted the letter on its public Web site, but it should be available soon. Check